The power of prayer

Evangelical Christianity and Democracy in Latin America provides a valuable set of case studies on Protestant politics in five countries


Evangelical Christianity and Democracy in Latin America
Edited by Paul Freston
2008, Oxford University Press
250 pages

Reviewed by Gavin O’Toole

EVANGELICAL politics is one of the most important phenomena in the transformation of a once entirely Catholic Latin America, not least because of the breathtaking expansion of Protestantism in the region.

According to the World Christian Database, in 2005 pentecostals alone represented 13 per cent of the region’s population, and non-pentecostal evangelicals may represent a further 3 to 5 per cent.

As the number of Protestants has grown, so have efforts by politicians to seek their support, and Protestant groups themselves have become more involved in politics.

Efraín Ríos Montt and Jorge Serrano Elías in Guatemala, Alberto Fujimori in Peru, and Alvaro Uribe in Colombia are just some of those politicians who have courted Protestant groups. In Paraguay, Oscar Nicanor Duarte – nominally a Catholic but critical of the hierarchy and, in fact, a regular Mennonite worshipper – was elected president.

Impact on political behaviour

The penetration of Protestantism in Latin America is a phenomenon of singular importance at this stage in the region’s development because many scholars believe religion shapes the way that individuals behave politically and economically.

There are, in particular, crucial questions surrounding the relationship between Protestantism and democracy, not least because many sociologists generally see Latin American evangelicals as favouring self-government, personal initiative, and gradual, peaceable change, suggesting Protestantism fosters attitudes about lifestyle, work ethic and authority that affect political culture. As Paul Freston points out in his introduction to Evangelical Christianity and Democracy in Latin America, of all the major religions, Protestant Christianity has the longest historical links with processes of democratisation; in Latin America Protestant identity has been forged strongly in opposition to the dominant Catholicism; and the context of the rise of Protestant politics in the region has been redemocratisation.

Evangelical Christianity and Democracy in Latin America is a valuable contribution to this field. While this solidly edited collection was the result of a project conceived by evangelicals themselves – giving it the kind of intimate authority that many researchers can only dream of – it is particularly worthwhile because of its focus on the key issue of evangelicalism and democracy.

The collection is also impressively self-reflective, with many of the researchers involved in it not “card-carrying” evalgelicals themselves, dispelling any sense that the book is banging the drum for the democratic credentials of one religious sector.

The contributors seek to deepen empirical knowledge of evangelicals in Latin America through a series of detailed case studies in five countries: Mexico, Guatemala, Nicaragua, Peru and Brazil. They draw attention, among other things, to the role played increasingly by ethnicity in the demographics of Protestantism; the sheer diversity of the evangelical political experience; and the often unexplored relationship between the emergence of Protestant churches and surrounding violence.

Several of the chapters provide up to date and fascinating examinations of the rise and fate of evangelical political parties and such notions as bloc votes. In his conclusion to the book, Daniel Levine argues that, in general, these parties have not done well, unable to deliver the evangelical vote or attract support outside of it. In a context of democratic consolidation, the weight of evidence suggests that the potential impact of evangelicals on democracy has been greater through indirect means.

Evangelical Christianity and Democracy in Latin America is a fascinating introduction to this theme, and will be a valuable addition to course texts on politics and society in Latin America.

Gavin O’Toole is Editor of the Latin American Review of Books